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How To Build Trust From Mistrust

House Speaker John Boehner listens as President Obama delivers a statement on Syria during a meeting with members of Congress at the White House on Sept. 3.
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
House Speaker John Boehner listens as President Obama delivers a statement on Syria during a meeting with members of Congress at the White House on Sept. 3.

Looking beyond the shutdown and debt ceiling stalemates, CNN's John King said on TV Monday night that distrust among all parties in Washington is "deep and multilayered."

He said, "Imagine this confrontation as a dinner party: The president doesn't trust the speaker. The president doesn't have a relationship with the Senate Republican leader. The senate majority leader, a Democrat, doesn't want the Democratic vice president involved. The Tea Party members don't trust their own speaker and are suspicious of their own leadership. Nobody here trusts each other. Nobody wants to get along."

Not sure about the dinner party metaphor, but King may be right about the overarching — and undermining — lack of trust in Washington these days. Regardless of the outcome of this standoff, how will the warring factions ever make peace? And then, how will they ever trust one another again?

How do you build trust from mistrust?

Spencer Platt / Getty Images
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Practice, says Jeff Silverman, an instructor at . Practice and repetition.

"Over time, practice and repetition build predictability," Silverman says. "The catcher knows, to a high degree of certainty, the exact movements of the flyer. The flyer knows, to a high degree of certainty, the movements of the catcher."

So it might help if the president and the speaker spend some time together, practicing getting along.

'Verify And Verify'

The notion of trust that we carry with us through life, according to the late psychologist Erik Erikson, is developed at a tender age.

"The ratio and relation of basic trust to basic mistrust established during early infancy determines much of the individual's capacity for simple faith," Erikson wrote in Young Luther.

Much, but maybe not all. Politics apparently can challenge that notion of trust. Political pundits through the ages have pondered the powers — and pitfalls — of trust:

"Those who do not trust sufficiently, others have no trust in them," warned the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.

"The only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust," noted Henry L. Stimson, a Republican statesman of the 20th century.

"You can't trust anybody with power," observed then-Speaker of the House and now-TV commentator Newt Gingrich in 1995.

Gingrich may be onto something. Arguably, the acidic politics of today is eroding — if not erasing — trust among people.

"Trust, but verify," President Ronald Reagan famously said in the 1980s about America's attitude toward the Soviet Union, especially when it came to nuclear arms information. Just recently, Secretary of State John Kerry updated the adage to "verify and verify" regarding the U.S. attitude toward the conflict in Syria.

Gone is the idea of trust.

Rebuilding Trust

So how can political leaders regain that sense of trust, that childhood ideal of faith and confidence?

Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, says, "The best way to build trust is for leaders to make clear public commitments to deals that will be hard, if not impossible, to retract."

In other words, Zelizer suggests that the decision-makers "lock themselves into terms, as best as possible, that would create the path toward a deal in such a way that their opponent knows it is impossible to renege."

To boot, he says, "each leader has to show the other, in a genuine way, that they have reached a point that they are thinking more about the civic goals than the partisan goals. This is obviously elusive and difficult to do, but it is the turn in thinking that happens at great moments of political breakthroughs when leaders reach mutual agreement to move forward on the great issues of the day and to break through political gridlock."

But how to begin? How do you meld the thinking with the doing? How do you encourage politicians to share their ideas and practice trust and polity at the same time? How do you get political leaders to trust each other like trapeze artists?

Gifford Pinchot — the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, two-term governor of Pennsylvania and trusted adviser to Theodore Roosevelt — had an idea of how to get folks to trust each other. When he invited people to his summer home, Grey Towers — now a national historic landmark — on the Delaware River, he served them meals at a very strange and marvelous dining table called the Finger Bowl. The table is actually a circular, stone-enclosed pool of water, with an encompassing ledge wide enough for plates and glasses and room to accommodate up to 18 people.

Dinner guests — often politicians of differing stripes — passed large wooden bowls of meats and vegetables and desserts to and fro by floating them, trapeze-style, across the water. Over the course of a long, conversation-laced meal, the practice and repetition of launching bowls and receiving them built predictability, a Grey Towers tour guide once told us.

To keep the serving dishes from capsizing, everyone was forced to cooperate. And to practice the art of caution. And compromise.

And, perhaps against countervailing forces, even to trust.

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.